The Good News of the Return of the King
Michael T. Jahosky, The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle-Earth (Wipf & Stock, 2020), 238 pp.
During the first half of the twentieth century, a brave cadre of poet-critics, most hailing from the American South, rose up to save poetry, and the language of poetry, from the forces of materialism, rationalism, and positivism. Their happy company included such “New Critics” as John Crowe Ransom, R. K. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, and Monroe C. Beardsley.
Rather than reduce poetry to the psychological state of the poet or its psychological impact on the reader, the New Critics treated the poem as its own self-contained universe, an artifact that had its own internal structure that could not be explained away by the tools of the hard sciences or the theories of the social sciences. Poems were not to be pinned down and dissected but feasted on, absorbed in all their rich fullness. It might be the case in a specimen of scientific prose that each word could be assigned a fixed, unambiguous meaning. Such a totalitarian approach was neither true nor desirable in the more democratic realm of poetry, where the individual words had more freedom and could not be reduced and regimented to a single function.
Brooks, the most radical of the New Critics, attacked, with the passion of a prophet, what he called the “heresy of paraphrase.” Whereas Ransom had argued that poems had a narrative backbone or “paraphrasable core” (structure) that worked in tandem with its local details (texture), Brooks countered that no such core could be extracted from the poem and viewed apart from its details. The poem is its union of structure and texture; to try to separate the two is to vivisect, and thus kill, the poem. Far from being a static arrangement of details around a core, a poem is a dynamic process in which each particular, concrete detail exists in a tense equilibrium with its abstract, universal core.
The role of the New Critics is not to "break the code" of a poem or simplify it into a moral, but to uncover its hidden ironies and ambiguities. Meaning in a poem is not conveyed in a straightforward, one-to-one manner, but in an indirect way, by means of a complex series of deflections. The best poems, like the teachings of Jesus, are expressed, and embodied, in a form that is richly and essentially paradoxical.
Although Michael Jahosky does not reference the New Critics in his original and, I believe, seminal new study of J. R. R. Tolkien, The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle-Earth, he does reference a number of biblical scholars (among them, N. T. Wright, Sallie McFague, Gisela Kreglinger, Klyne Snodgrass, John Dominic Crossan, and Amy-Jill Levine) who treat Jesus’ parables in the same way that Brooks treats poetry. Jahosky, an assistant professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in Florida, defines parables as “comparative narratives that bring together the mundane and the transcendent, the abstract and concrete. They are imaginative stories that re-mythologize and reenchant reality by putting the transcendence back into the world that the modern rational, materialistic worldview has taken out of it. . . . Parables put the ‘real’ back into reality. Parables, as a form of mythology, show us that truth is not narrowly defined by what human reason, the senses, and science can prove” (xii).
Parables must not be reduced to one-to-one, propositional truths but must be swallowed whole with all of their deceptive ordinariness and revelatory strangeness intact. Too often, Jahosky laments, Christians interpret a parable of Jesus as “an earthly story with heavenly meanings,” rather than as what it truly is: “a holistic, comprehensive story that sees heaven and earth overlapping and interlocking—and one day, coming completely together” (49). Often, those same Christians are confused by the “messianic secret” that dominates the synoptic gospels: that is, Jesus’ seeming reluctance to come out and say directly that he is the incarnate Son of God. They want both Jesus and his parables to behave, to state plainly who and what they are.
But it is not possible, Jahosky suggests, to capture and convey the paradox of the incarnation in propositional language, in what Tennyson, channeling Dante, calls “matter-molded forms of speech.” That is why Jesus turns to the ironic, ambiguous form of the parable to proclaim the gospel message that the incarnate God has come into the world. “Jesus did not come trumpeting his incarnate identity; he came speaking in parables. . . . The parables are not just stories about what will happen, they are stories about what is happening. The parables help up prepare for this reality by communicating it to us in a way that we can process” (63).
And what exactly is this “reality” for which the parables prepare us. The incarnation, yes, but something more as well. Whereas the creeds of the Church, Jahosky argues, put their focus on the divinity of Christ, the parables presuppose his divinity, and then point to the full gospel message: that God has defeated evil and has taken his throne as the true king. Granted, his kingship will not achieve its full consummation until the second coming, but his kingdom has been founded among men, and he reigns now, not in some shadowy future. As for us, the creatures made in his image to serve on his divine council, our destiny is not to escape the earth for some insubstantial heaven, but to reign beside him on a restored and perfected earth.
What has all this to do with The Lord of the Rings? Plenty! Tolkien’s epic, Jahosky argues persuasively, uses the same kind of parabolic structure to proclaim the same good news. “The Lord of the Rings does not conclude with the hope that one day Iluvatar [Tolkien’s name for God] will enter his creation, for he already has in Aragorn. In other words, Tolkien’s parable, like Jesus’s parables, announces the advent of the world’s one true king and the inauguration of his kingdom and looks forward to its full consummation in the future when ‘everything sad’ will come ‘untrue.’ In short the return of the king means God is present in Middle-earth” (105).
This passage, which sums up succinctly Jahosky’s simple but profound thesis, calls for some parsing. Christian critics of Tolkien know full well that The Lord of the Rings was understood by its author to be a fundamentally Catholic work, but they also know that Tolkien hated allegory. So how exactly does the gospel message find its way into Middle-earth if allegory is off the table? Jahosky resolves this dilemma by demonstrating that Tolkien did not hate all allegory, but only the kind that is overly pointed and based on one-to-one correspondences. There is a different kind of allegory that works in the same way as a myth or fairy story or parable—by retelling in a different, often fantastical setting the universal biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
More often than not, however, the full shape of that universal story (or metanarrative) can only be glimpsed and grasped in retrospect. That is why we must read the Old Testament backward through the lens of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, as the risen Jesus taught the two travelers to do as he walked with them along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27). Just so the two prequels to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, cannot be fully understood until they are read backwards from the perspective of the coronation of Aragorn, his royal marriage to Arwen, and the discovery of a living, remnant-like sprig of the sacred Tree.
That is to say, the prequels do not attain their full meaning until the return of the king to his throne brings the metanarrative to its climax, while yet pointing forward to the fuller consummation to come. Only when we read it this way does the messianic return of Thorin Oakenshield to the throne of Erebor in The Hobbit take its place as a prerequisite to the messianic return of Aragorn. Indeed, as Jahosky reveals, had Thorin not returned, an event that led to the slaying of Smaug the dragon, Smaug would likely have killed the ten-year-old Aragorn in Rivendell.
Thorin and Aragorn, like Jesus himself, are kings in exile whose true natures are often concealed. In the gospels, Jesus’ divinity is glimpsed by Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-4); throughout The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is “described as being transfigured or transformed from the weary ranger into a tall and kingly figure” (104). At one point, Aragorn, in preparation for his reclamation of his lost throne, reveals himself, through a seeing stone known as the palantir, to the Dark Lord Sauron, and then sets forth to brave the Paths of the Dead. Just so did Jesus wrestle “with the enemy and his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately prior to his arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion” (120).
Although this review has only scratched the surface of Jahosky’s incisive readings of Tolkien’s epic and Jesus’ parables, I hope it will encourage readers of the Bible and The Lord of the Rings to find in both the same kind of richness and complexity that the New Critics found in poetry. I also hope, along with Jahosky, that my fellow anti-monarchical Americans will find themselves able to discern in the promise of the return of the King good news for themselves and our fallen world.
Louis Markos holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities at Houston Baptist University, where he serves as Professor in English and Scholar in Residence. He works include Atheism on Trial, Apologetics for the 21st Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits.
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